Cider Question: Can I use apples with worm holes?

If you are like me, you are interested in trying different apples but more importantly, you’re interested in cheap apples. Those may come from a backyard or roadside tree or even from an orchard. Often, they are damaged either from insects or weather, like hail. This inevitably leads to this week’s Cider Question about whether you can use apples with worm holes or other damage. The simple answer is yes. But, answers to questions about hard cider are rarely simple or straightforward. Let’s explain the impact damaged apples can have but why it can be okay to use them.

You may be concerned that damaged apples could harbor human pathogens, and they can (especially drops that are picked from the ground). You may also be worried that some insects in the apples might pass on a pathogen. Remember that insects are a vital part of many diets around the world so general consumption of insects isn’t a health issue like human pathogens from damage or insects could be. But, this isn’t why you add sulfites (sulphites) or what’s often called Campden to juice or cider. Campden doesn’t kill or inhibit human pathogens. It only impacts organisms that could impact flavor. What really keeps hard cider free of human pathogens is the ethanol created by fermentation and the acidity of cider.

Once your yeast processes enough sugar from the juice to create ethanol to around 2.5% alcohol by volume (a drop in specific gravity of around 0.020 or 20 points), your juice becomes cider and in a couple days, human pathogens will have been eliminated(2). The acidic nature of cider weakens the cell walls of human pathogens allowing the ethanol to penetrate and kill these pathogens. Cider is naturally safe because of the alcohol and acids. Other bacteria like Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB) and acetic acid bacteria are more resilient and can survive. But, these bacteria impact flavor, not health. This means cider is naturally safe and part of why it doesn’t spoil. However, that doesn’t mean you would want to use any apple, regardless of its condition.

Example of apple with hail damage.

Hail Damaged Apple

Example of Apple with insect damage.

Apple with Insect Damage

Damaged apples either from hail, falling, or insects will almost certainly carry higher levels of bacteria and undesirable yeast. These include lactic acid bacteria, acetic acid bacteria, and Brettanomyces species of yeast. These are the organisms in your micro flora that can create undesirable flavors. However, they aren’t human pathogens. In fact some can be probiotic or prebiotic. Many of these, but not all, are also susceptible to sulfites. This is where you need to assess your wallet and your taste buds. Free or cheap apples that are damaged usually win out for me and they go into the juicer worm holes and all. If you are worried about off flavors, you might consider using some Campden tablets. Instead, I usually focus on sanitation of my equipment, cleaning my apples, and limiting the exposure of my cider to oxygen, which is generally needed for most undesirable flavors to form.

Unlike juice, which could harbor some human pathogen, hard cider has a naturally occurring purifier, ethanol, that is also aided by another naturally occurring compound, acids. This makes cider production a very forgiving process when it comes to ensuring a product free of human pathogens, even when suspect fruit is utilized.

(1) Menz, G., Alfred, P., and Vriesekoop, F. 2011. Growth and Survival of Foodborne Pathogens in Beer. J. Food Prot. 74:1670-1675.

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